Saturday, July 14, 2018

Convention Center: is bigger really better?

As regular as the noise of  locust in the summer is the clamor of Baltimore's  power elite for a bigger convention center, a new arena and more convention hotels, regardless of whatever else might ail this city.
Dull on every side: Baltimore Convention Center with Sheraton Hotel in
background (Photo: Philipsen)

Just as predictable are the doubters who ask whether a convention center is really sound economic development, whether dollars on expansion are just more good money wasted, and just another example of misguided priorities. The answers those questions are supposed to come from studies commissioned by the promoters of expansion. In that 2018 is just like 2012 or 2008 (when the city owned Hilton opened) or 1997 (when the original center dating to 1979 was expanded the first time).

The late Willard Hackerman, owner the Sheraton next to the convention center and the construction company Whiting Turner had suggested to combine an expansion of all three components, convention center, hotel and arena with his hotel as the lynchpin. This proposal was studied in 2012 in a feasibility study which assumed a $325 million new arena, a $175 million hotel and a $400 million convention center expansion of about 300,000 additional square feet. Hackerman lured with a private public partnership with the arena and the hotel privately financed. In spite of offering a chunk of his fortune, not enough takers lifted the project off the ground, even though then Governor O'Malley was on board and requesting $2.5 million state funds as design money. Mayor Rawlings Blake gushed at the time:
Dreaming big: Hackerman hybrid with hotel and arena. (ASG)
"building a new, world-class convention center in the heart of Baltimore's Inner Harbor will strengthen our tourism industry and spark new growth throughout the city."
Back then the use of the descriptor "world class" didn't yet raise a red flag.  The idea died with Hackermann in 2014. Surprisingly, though, already in 2016 Governor Hogan brought the topic back up, with support from the city convention bureau. The convention center expansion seems to be the only project which Governor Hogan inherited from O'Malley and which he didn't set out to kill. He even commissioned the very same consultants who had done the feasibility analysis for Hackermann's idea.  The charge was to look "at the earlier proposal for the hybrid project and test it against market conditions today" (MSA senior vice president Gary McGuigan). The stadium authority approved a plan to spend $1 million for the first phase of a “program design and engineering study” that could eventually cost the same $2.5 million which O'Malley had already requested in 2012.  Towards the first $1 million, the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore gave $60,000 the State paid $626,667 and the city $313,333. (Ed Gunts, 8/2/2016).
Pittsburgh tensile convention center, designed by Rafael Vinoly: a monument
on the Allegheny River
Studies repeat the same positive findings verbatim from one city to another and fail to account for contradictory data. These market and feasibility studies thus offer no real basis for public investment and serve to bias public decision making and choice.” Convention Myths and Markets: A Critical Review of Convention Center Feasibility Studies” Economic Development Quarterly, 2002
This month the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) released the updated report in three parts: design, construction and market analysis. The study was to look at alternative scenarios for expansion and recommend whether the expansion should include a new arena and hotel or not. It should not include an arena, the consultant team says now, with Hackerman no longer able to object. The study considers a 565,000-square-foot arena with at least 13,000 seats. Since the 1962 Royal Farms Arena seats 12,000 to 14,000 people today, the hybrid convention/arena model would not offer a bigger event space. The hotel under consideration replaces the 337-room Sheraton with a 500-room hotel that would be connected to the convention center. The 2008 completed city-owned Hilton convention center hotel has 756 rooms.
Full build-out massing model of the east wing with hotel and arena
(Clark Construction report)

The State's MSA has long since expanded its arm into Baltimore from stadium projects not only to the convention center but also to school construction and the future of Pimlico. 
Established by the State General Assembly in 1986, the Maryland Stadium Authority’s (MSA) mission is to plan, finance, build and manage sports and entertainment facilities in Maryland; provide enjoyment, enrichment, education, and business opportunities for citizens; and develop partnerships with local governments, universities, private enterprise and the community. The Baltimore Convention Center (BCC) is owned and operated by the City of Baltimore (City) and is one of the projects with which MSA is involved. (Introduction, Crossroads Consulting)
The expansion ideas are usually embedded into a chorus of voices pointing to shiny new convention centers in neighboring cities and lamenting the conventions Baltimore lost or couldn't get because of its size or age. A popular exhibit especially Otakon, an offbeat anime convention which started in 1994 in Charm City and which Baltimore lost to DC because Baltimore's Center is presumably too small for the ever growing assembly. There is some irony in the stiff Baltimore business phalanx led by GBC CEO Donald Fry and his chair Tiburzi as Otakon protagonists.
Inflated "fiscal impacts" based on conventioneers' spending: Otakon

The always questionable calculations of secondary economic benefits appear especially doubtful when it comes to conventions like the anime festival in which the colorful participants who are practically themselves the attraction hardly match the standard profile of conventioneers.

That large conventions don't fit entirely into one center isn't unusual. A case in point was the National architect convention of AIA last month which took place in New York's Javits Convention Center, also dating to 1979. The center has been expanded several times with the most recent round just completed. It has now 1.8 million square feet gross area and was still too small to accommodate all events for the 28,000 architects convening in New York. As a result the participants shuttled in tour buses to the New School on 5th Avenue for some classes and seminars and to Radio City Hall for plenary sessions with simulcasts in the largest Javits event hall. (Baltimore's Center has 1.2 million square feet). One could argue that spreading conventioneers for very large events across several facilities is actually a good thing, both for the city and for the conventioneers who get to get out of the same space sometimes.

But Baltimore's Mayor sounded just like her predecessor and all those on the bandwagon of a bigger convention center. 
“Achieving the much-needed upgrades to Pimlico and the Convention Center remain among my top priorities and I’m committed to ensuring that these important city venues are fully able to accommodate the increased demand for high quality sporting, leisure and business experiences. Baltimore needs to stay competitive and investing in these anchor facilities will undoubtedly prove an investment in our future. We’ll continue to work with the Maryland Stadium Authority and other key stakeholders as we determine the best approach to accomplish these objectives.” (Mayor Pugh statement according to the BBJ)
Ayers Saint Gross (Design) and Crossroads consulting (economics) who got to study the project already for a second time once again compare Baltimore's Convention Center with its peers on  metrics (ballrooms, function spaces) in which it doesn't compare favorably with the select group of comps.
Consistently low ranking among peers: Graphic Crossroads Consulting
But the selection of the peers is interesting in itself. Including the convention centers of Philadelphia, Washington and Boston, three cities were selected which are hardly comparable to Baltimore, no matter what metric, even if we wished it weren't so.

Consistently low ranking among peers: Graphic Crossroads Consulting
But then there is also the Gaylord Resort Convention Center on the list which recently opened as part of National Harbor, waterfront development including offices, shops, restaurants, apartments and a gigantic casino  in Prince George's County on the banks of the Potomac across from Alexandra, Va. That center is much smaller than Baltimore's but was never conceived to compete with the DC Convention Center across the river. This modern facility is proof that there is a healthy market for secondary facilities which compete on a different level than the flagship centers. It isn't clear why Baltimore's Center sitting near the Inner Harbor and the casino could easily be a very attractive location for smaller conventions instead of trying to compete with first tier cities with which we won't be able to compete for some time for any number of reasons.

The economic report doesn't compare the attendance rates or economic performance of the peer centers but jumps straight into a fiscal impact analysis, measuring in several ways how much an expansion would increase direct, indirect and "induced" spending. A proprietary software named  IMPLAN adds it all up to the "total economic impact". The result is neither entirely voodoo nor entirely scientific just as most modeling software that works with a big set of data but also a great number of assumptions.
Size comparison: Crossroads Consulting

The consultant introduces its economic analysis with an admission that many convention centers operate with deficits. The 2012 study showed the three year average deficit for the Baltimore Convention Center as $8.1 million, $2.72 million paid by the City and $5.44 million by the state, a loss that was then projected to grow through expansion to around $10 million. The annual operating deficit in the new report is given as $7.2 million for the five year average. (57% of the expenses covered by income). The "fiscal impact" of the current center just for the City is estimated to be $17.4 million, less than what the City expects to take in from its traffic cameras alone in FY '19.
With respect to financial performance, many similar convention centers realize an operating deficit. However, one of the primary reasons for developing these types of facilities is the economic activity that they can generate in terms of spending, employment, earnings, as well as tax revenues to local and state governments. These facilities typically attract events that draw patrons from outside the immediate market area who spend money on hotels, restaurants and other related services. In many instances, the economic activity can outweigh the operating costs. Consequently, when evaluating the merits of these types of projects, it is important to consider all aspects of the costs and benefits including operating requirements, debt service and economic/fiscal impacts.(Crossroads Consulting pg. 45)
Pretty but dull: Walking alongside the new wing of the Convention Center
on Conway Street (Photo Philipsen)
The updated study does not contain a new projection of the operating deficit of an expanded center, instead, the fiscal impact analysis are repeated for the Arena. It is interesting to see that the much smaller Arena has a three year average attendance of 526,000 which is higher than the three year attendance of 494,973 for all public events in the Convention Center. The existing exhibit space was only 60% of the time occupied in 2016, the ballroom space only 51%. Hardly convincing numbers for an expansion of space. But the consultant sees this differently pointing to "lost business":
the most frequent reason an event was not booked at the facility was availability which encompasses lack of date availability at the BCC, inadequate space at the BCC, and hotel availability (e.g., preferred hotel package, number of hotel rooms, preferred dates, etc.). In aggregate, the lack of availability accounted for approximately 1.9 million lost hotel room nights for the profiled five-year period, approximately 1.5 million (or 79%) of which were attributable to lack of date availability or  inadequate space at the BCC.
Too bad, the consultant doesn't isolate the space argument from the calendar reason, the latter would persist, no matter how big the center would be, unless it would be large enough to house two concurrent events.
San Francsico: Expanding across the Street

Lastly, there is urban design. The Baltimore Center had from its first day on a deadening effect on all the streets it faces, namely Convay, Pratt, Charles and Howard Streets. It, along with the treatment of Conway Street as the end of a freeway, cut off the redeveloped Otterbein from downtown. The connections via Charles, Sharp and Howard Street are just too awful to walk. In fact, the block between the backs of the Harbor facing hotels and the bunker like convention center is the dullest stretch of Charles Street in the entire City. Pratt Street  fares better, not for the center's architecture but because of the wide sidewalks and planting areas, which are not exactly interesting but show at least some respect for the pedestrian. Of course, Pratt Street is also where both the east and the west centers have their entrances, putting some life on the street during events. The architects assume that the original largely submerged east portion of the convention center would be demolished and entirely rebuilt on a larger footprint which would include the Sheraton Hotel.
Washington Convention Center in DC 

In some cities convention centers, in spite of their challange to look attractive, manage to be architectural attractions in their own right. An example is  Pittsburgh's David L. Lawrence Convention Center designed by star architect Rafael Viñoly. The center doesn't block downtown from the waterfront but opened up new ways to experience it for local residents and conventioneers alike.

In Philadelphia the Convention Center partly hides behind the re-purposed historic Reading station building and otherwise continues the somewhat unfortunate pattern of bridging streets that several shopping complexes had already started. In Boston the convention center is the landmark of the innovation district emerging in a large scale industrial setting. Some centers like San Francisco's Moscone Center sit near downtown and battle similar issues as Baltimore's center, but Moscone, with its green courtyard and a stand alone expansion building across the street, creates nevertheless a pretty pedestrian friendly and convincing composition.

Moscone Center, San Francisco

Ayers Saint Gross Architects (ASG) have studied the harbor, Pratt Street, the Arena and the Convention Center enough to be fully aware of the effect that the center along with the Federal Building and other not so successful urban renewal efforts have on continuity and connectivity in Baltimore. In working on the latest report for MSA they did not really submit architecture but programming alternatives and layouts.

Yet, none of the before described approaches of the noted other cities become apparent in any of the scenarios. Obviously not a successful integration with history (such as Phialdelphia or Camden Yards), simply for lack of history.The small historic Otterbein church is already dwarfed by the existing center and clearly not suitable for integration. Also no concept promises to be a landmark solitaire which would be an attraction for its architecture alone in the way the suspension tent of the David L Lawrence Center in Pittsburgh is an attraction. Nor does any scenario entail a spatial composition around an open space as in the case of the Moscone Center in San Francisco. An expansion outside the already occupied blocks is not considered. It also becomes evident, that the much maligned Hilton Hotel on the west end of the Convention Center blocks now any expansion in that direction. The best remaining "across the street" expansion option would be the northeast corner of Pratt and Eutaw Streets.
Convention Center and Sheraton, current conditions (Clark Construction)

The best hope for the two re-imagining Baltimore convention center blocks, would be an architectural design as for the built from scratch Walter E. Washington Center, completed in 2003, which attempts to look like surrounding modern offices buildings in spite of its location on Mount Vernon Place and in the Shaw historic District and in spite of the gigantic expanse of the complex. But even that award winning facility with public streets running right through its footprint is already up for a redesign, aiming to make it through retail kiosks and art more attractive on the pedestrian level.

ASG developed a full array of program scenarios (with and without hotel and arena) with many suboptions, but none of them reveal the bones of a really inspiring design approach. Any big idea would need to be so fundamentally anchored in the DNA of a concept that it would show even on the most abstract level. Given that ASG counts on taking space along Charles and Pratt (which the firm considers currently underutilized) to achieve the basic expansion of the center, there is once again no room for wrapping the usually dull exhibit halls with restaurants, retail or anything else that would break the relentless scale of a convention center. As a result ASG give the best street-life grades to the most mixed programs, i.e. the scenarios with an arena and a hotel, simply because these scenarios have the highest probability of sending people into the streets during events. Outside events, all scenarios can be expected to have a street life that is as dull as today.
Charles between Conway and Pratt: Worst stretch
in Baltimore (Google Streetview)

It is probably the constructability analysis of Clark Construction which ultimately let the team recommend to drop the arena from the program to simply phasing and impacts during construction. Leaving the arena out eliminates the potentially innovative synergies that could evolve between a convention center and an arena. It also eliminates the hope that the place would be lively during the many days without active conventions.

No other realistic alternative arena locations have emerged, yet First Mariner makes money year after year. It is living proof that an old facility often described as obsolete,  can still achieve profits and solid bookings, precisely because it is not the biggest and shiniest, but because it is affordable and competes on a different level. This would suggest that a technical and architectural upgrade of the convention center without a huge expansion should be an option that should be considered as seriously as all the others. A much costly option would also be much more palatable in a City scratching for dollars to pay its police, its rec centers and the various funds aiming for more equity in a deeply segregated city.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Baltimore SUN about the report

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Does Baltimore Need a bigger Convention Center?

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

GBC's new chair Tiburzi: Expand the Convention Center and rebuild Pimlico

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